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Sen. Feinstein and husband, old friends of Dalai Lama, fear for Tibet

March 22, 2008

From Sacbee.com – For California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her husband, Richard Blum, the worsening Chinese crackdown on anti-government dissidents in Tibet is a horrific vision of their failed public and private diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Dalai Lama.

China blames the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader for violence that erupted March 14, the bloodiest conflict in two decades. One Communist Party official this week called him “a devil with a human face.”

That’s not the Dalai Lama that Feinstein and Blum, a wealthy international investor and Himalayan philanthropist, said they have come to know. They say the Dalai Lama, their friend for 30 years, is a peacemaker trying to preserve the cultural and religious institutions of an estimated 6 million oppressed Tibetans.

Blum flies the Dalai Lama to the United States and around the country on his private jet. The spiritual leader makes appearances at annual fundraisers for Blum’s American Himalayan Foundation, whose projects Blum said include assistance to Tibetan refugees fleeing their Chinese-controlled homelands.

Now, with journalists expelled and Chinese troops spreading throughout Tibet, Feinstein and Blum said in separate telephone interviews that they have grave fears about what is coming.

“The Chinese are in a bunker mentality,” Feinstein said. “It’s needless. It’s inhumane. It’s wrongheaded. It need not be.”

Blum said the world is watching now, as China prepares to host the Summer Olympics in August, but he worries about what will happen when the international spotlight disappears.

The latest anti-government protests began in the capital of Lhasa. They prompted similar actions in provinces across western China and led to Chinese accusations that the Dalai Lama was instigating the violence.

For at least two decades, Feinstein and Blum have been virtual ambassadors, shuttling between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government – Feinstein as county supervisor and San Francisco mayor and then as California’s powerful Democratic senator, Blum as international investor and mountain climbing hobbyist.

“I came upon all this by meeting Dick,” the senator explained. “Dick has very strong feelings for Buddhism and the Himalayan people.”

Blum, with growing investments in China, obtained the permits from Beijing for the first – and only – ascent of the east face of Mount Everest in 1983. He was not on that climb, but was part of the earlier 1981 expedition that had to turn back when the mountain seemed insurmountable.

The couple’s connection to China has been controversial. In 1997, critics cited the potential for conflict between Feinstein’s role as a foreign policy leader and Blum’s Chinese investments. The couple vehemently denied any connection, and Blum announced he would contribute all profits from his personal investments in China to the foundation.

Blum said he has had “hundreds of conversations” with Chinese leaders over 25 years trying to get them to sit down with the Dalai Lama. Three times in the 1990s, Feinstein and Blum carried letters from the Dalai Lama to China’s president, Jiang Zemin, asking for a meeting.

Feinstein knew Jiang. They had been mayors of their respective sister cities, San Francisco and Shanghai. They felt there was rapport, maybe even hope. The Dalai Lama felt it, too.

“I have been often told by our good friends Mr. Richard Blum and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and others, that a meeting between you and me could make important progress in a relatively short period of time,” the Dalai Lama said in the May 16, 1998, letter the international power couple carried on his behalf to Jiang.

Ten years earlier, tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to brutally quash a student pro-democracy demonstration. Blum said hope for the Dalai Lama’s peace overtures with a hardening Beijing government began to flicker and dim. Now they are extinguishing completely.

Feinstein said she offered last year to trade away the Dalai Lama’s Congressional Gold Medal, the highest form of recognition Congress can bestow, for a meeting between him and the Chinese government.

“I was visited twice by the Chinese ambassador asking me not to do it,” she said of her campaign for the gold medal. “I said I wouldn’t do it if they would just sit down and meet with him. But no dice.”

On Wednesday Feinstein released a letter from the Dalai Lama about the worsening homeland situation.

“I am deeply saddened by what is happening in Tibet,” he wrote. “I treasure my friendship with you and Richard Blum. I deeply appreciate your interest and support to the Tibetan cause at this most critical time.”

Feinstein said the couple’s failed efforts to help bridge the cultural divide between Buddhist Tibet and communist China have been disappointing.

“I really believe that they could make an agreement that would take a major step forward,” Feinstein said, but first they have to meet. There have been no face-to-face meetings between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese since the 1959 rebellion that sent him into exile.

Blum said the Chinese have no one to blame but themselves for the deteriorating situation. Because they refuse to meet with the Dalai Lama to talk about peaceful coexistence, Blum said, the Chinese are energizing younger activists who are losing faith in their spiritual leader’s ways.

“It is enormously frustrating,” Blum said. “There is nothing in my life where I have spent more effort – flown, talked, attended meetings in Beijing and everywhere else – and had so little to show for it.”

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